LAST week I was once again invited to speak at the increasingly prestigious Boao Forum for Asia which is held annually at the subtropical island province of Hainan, China. Both the Chinese and Philippine presidents were there too, striking a cordial note for the relations between the two countries which had previously been sour due to disputes over maritime sovereignty.
I spoke on the possible cooperation pathways in the South China Sea and beyond, making two specific and, I hope, positive proposals. For one, I am particularly impressed by the “people-to-people bond” theme of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I frankly think that unlike the rest of the world, Southeast Asia has seen intense civil-society exchanges with China. But one of the major hindrances which frequently frustrate these sorts of close encounters is none other than visa requirements. Tourists and businessmen who would otherwise like to make last-minute trips are sometimes prevented from doing so by the stringent visa policies of various countries in the region.
In Boao this year, as a first proposal I therefore openly called for the advent of visa-free travel among the various countries along the BRI. Significant political and diplomatic wills, as well as security and economic concerns, from all sides would of course have to be expended for this proposal to come to fruition, but I think such collective determination could be forged among the BRI nations, because the benefits which can be derived from freedom of movement among various peoples are innumerable, such as the free flow of goodwill and innovative ideas.
In addition, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road as part of BRI has seen notable developments mostly along the world’s major shipping routes which traverse the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest of waterways. Nevertheless, there is a more easterly stretch of the Maritime Silk Road which can use more attention and development, and that is the one which connects China with the South Pacific. Hainan island, which is strategically located off the southern coast of China, can be the starting point for such a “branched” Maritime Silk Road which traverses not only the South China Sea but also the waters among Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, then onward to Papua New Guinea, Australia and the South Pacific islands. In line with the aims of the BRI, trade between China and these regions should be enhanced, and regional infrastructure could be upgraded, not the least with the assistance of China. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have long been engaged in the BIMP-EAGA regional development initiative, which has stalled in recent years. China should take part in this initiative and play an active role in reviving it. Only with a revitalized economy would this part of the resource-rich region be able to enjoy peace and stability, and in the process also friendship with China that will be mutually beneficial. The 21st century Maritime Silk Road should be an inclusive one that will benefit the whole region, from Southeast Asia to the South Pacific.
I exude a very pragmatic outlook for the region, South China Sea and beyond. First and foremost I want to see massive economic revitalization for my immediate subregion, that is covered more or less by BIMP-EAGA. We simply cannot afford to lag behind the rest of our Southeast Asia region, which is now one of the fastest growing regions of the world. Most of all I want adequate education and ample job opportunities for my countrymen and my neighbors. I hope visa-free travel and a heightened focus on the South Pacific Route of the BRI can help accomplish these goals.
In Boao, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the Filipino provincial governors whose province borders Sabah, my home state. When we were introduced to each other, the governor said jovially, “there are plenty of Sabahans in my province.” I paused sheepishly for a few seconds, then sort of “retorted” with a, I hope, equally jovial laugh, “well, as you may well know, there are indeed a lot of Filipinos in Sabah, some say up to half the population!” I was referring of course to the many undocumented migrants in Sabah who most likely originated from southern Philippines. The governor took the cue and burst out laughing too. We had a most cordial exchange.
Unlike many of my countrymen, I do not think the ultimate solution for the problems associated with these undocumented migrants lies with summarily deporting them, for they will simply turn back and reenter Sabah once they are pushed out to the “no man’s sea” area bordering Malaysia and the Philippines, or they can always come back at a later date. I believe more in “prospering thy neighbor.” We must all join hands to try our best to develop our corner of Southeast Asia, perhaps along the lines suggested above, such that all of us would see no need to migrate elsewhere but would be more than happy to lift up our own homelands. And peace will then pervade.